How to rock the world

If Robbie Williams and Charlotte Church effortlessly make it on to tabloid front pages, so can your artist, says Simon Napier Bell
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The Independent Online

I often hear music PRs grumbling that the new generation of gossip magazines, such as Heat and Closer, make it hell to protect celebrities' images. These magazines print photographs of people drunk falling out of cars or leaving the house with unwashed hair. The silly thing is, in the Sixties and Seventies that was the image everyone wanted. Rock'n'roll was about establishing that one definitely did behave badly - in restaurants, in aeroplanes, in public, in private. And this rock image extended to most pop groups.

Nowadays, everyone can live the rock'n'roll life. Everything rock stars always did - binge drinking, overdosing, all-night sex parties, trashing hotel rooms - young people can do for themselves at the weekends, or in Ibiza. As a result, people don't care much any more what rock and pop stars get up to. Yet somehow this doesn't apply to girls.

These days the sort of publicity that once made rock'n'roll heroes is hardly glanced at when guys do it, but it's working well for the girls. Fights in disco toilets between members of rival pop groups and general vomiting around town is what now gives one female pop star the edge over another. Just recently GQ voted Charlotte Church Woman of the Year. The reasons? She boozed and misbehaved just like a bloke. In previous years, the only way for girls to get into GQ's awards pages was to have big knockers or go knickerless to discos.

Every good PR knows that the true art of publicity is to grab what's going, but the resulting exposure still has to fit with the artist's current promotional requirements, which usually fall into six categories.

The first is at the beginning of an artist's career - putting a public face to a record that is being played heavily on radio. Think back to the days of Culture Club's first hit. "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me" was catchy enough and racing up the charts, but who really wanted to hear the whimpering voice of a young man singing about "being made to cry"? But once we'd learnt he wore a frock and lipstick, we understood. From then on it was just a matter of giving Boy George free rein to push himself everywhere.

Which leads to the second type of PR - the longish process of establishing an artist's personality. The key to getting this process running smoothly is to persuade the media to buy into it. If the personality that the artist projects appeals to the public, it generates a roll and becomes self-perpetuating - which is what has been happening to Charlotte Church: no longer a little girl singing classics, but a noisy pop bitch who gives the guys hell. Sometimes these bawdy images are for real; sometimes they're the invention of the manager, a good example being the Sex Pistols. When Sid Vicious felt sick at the airport, he headed for the toilet. Malcolm McLaren grabbed him and held him back till the vomit could wait no longer. It splashed out over the concourse and hit the front page of every newspaper.

Category three is basic PR - keeping an established star in the media sufficiently to maintain his name as a household word but without boring the public by overdoing it. Nowadays, the constant reiteration of the artist's name in the media is largely taken care of by the new gossip magazines. All the artist has to do is misbehave regularly and he or she will be in them each week. Traditionally this was done by a steady stream of small, carefully planned scams, week in week out - parking your car in a swimming pool, gatecrashing a cabinet meeting, smoking a spliff at the Lord Mayor's dinner. By this stage, the PR (or the manager) is at the mercy of the artist's real personality; there'll be no more hiding it, and the artist who is a skilful press manipulator will need little help from his PR. Bono is probably the consummate example - after months of championing Africa, haranguing presidents and duetting to the United Nations with Bob Geldof, his ancient rock group hardly needed any extra publicity to haul a new album to the number one spot. The fourth type of publicity - organising interviews to promote a new album or tour - is the most mundane Yet in the hands of a natural self-publicist such as Robbie Williams it can be transformed into a special event. Last month he harangued his critics at a press conference to launch his new album. "How dare you criticise me for using an automatic voice tuner," he blasted. "Don't you use spellcheck on your computer?"

The fifth type of publicity is the giant PR scam that takes an artist to another level. It might be breaking America, or it might be making a comeback after a bad spell. In the mid-1970s the Beach Boys had reached an all-time low, playing little more than pub gigs for a few hundred dollars a night.

They turned to a new manager, Tom Hewlett. On 4 July, he took the Beach Boys to Washington where they set up alongside the Washington Memorial and played for an hour. The truth is, among the vast crowds they were hardly noticed - many people thought they were a copycat group, cheap holiday entertainment. But the next day their manager was able to announce that the Beach Boys had played a gig at the Washington Memorial and one million people had come.

The media were derogatory: it was a scam. But Nancy Reagan stepped in and chastised them - the Beach Boys were her favourite group, as American as burgers and apple pie. The story ran and ran, and one month later the Beach Boys were back in 3,000-seater concert halls earning top bucks.

The sixth type of PR is the sharp thinking needed to turn a disaster into a positive story. George Michael's instant interview with CNN after being busted in a toilet was the perfect example, followed by another with Michael Parkinson. The result: a week later he was given a standing ovation by diners when he arrived at a London restaurant.

Many people think the golden rule is that publicity can only be as valuable as the music it's selling. But that's not quite true. The real media kings can cover a bad musical patch. Again George Michael is the ultimate, if unwitting, example. When he sued his record company, it prevented him making a new album for a full two years, allowing him to emerge at the end of the dispute creatively refreshed while keeping his face on the front pages day after day.

Using the media to lengthen and underwrite a career in this way is a trick many singers have played deftly, the essential thing being "not too much, not too little".

Occasionally, though, a hit song can be a good idea.